Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell
Mark Andrews, Steve Purcell, Brenda Chapman, Irene Mecchi
Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Kevin McKidd, Craig Ferguson
Merida is a skilled archer and impetuous daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Determined to carve her own path in life, Merida defies an age-old custom sacred to the uproarious lords of the land: massive Lord MacGuffin (Kevin McKidd), surly Lord Macintosh (Craig Ferguson) and cantankerous Lord Dingwall (Robbie Coltrane). Merida’s actions inadvertently unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, and when she turns to an eccentric old Witch (Julie Walters) for help, she is granted an ill-fated wish. The ensuing peril forces Merida to discover the meaning of true bravery in order to undo a beastly curse before it is too late.
Read all of our reviews below…
Wisely, Pixar’s first “Princess” movie, something their parent company has turned into a kind of synergistic cross-promotional branding thing, features a fiery Scottish lass who neither wants to be a princess nor desires marriage. In fact the dress of the princess here acts as an actual physical constraint bringing the metaphor to cinematic proportions. Much like The Incredibles, WallE and Ratatouille are most definitely ABOUT something first and foremost (rather than as a vehicle for pop songs and plush toys) and perhaps accidently, perhaps intentionally, end up going against the grain (or at least the cute, sell, brand philosophy) of the parent company. But I digress. Brave sets its focus on the give and take of communication between mothers and daughters, to the exclusion of all the boys in the household which are more or less buffoons to be put in place by the woman-folk – This is, well, brave for an animted four-quadrant picture. The original title, “The Bear and The Bow,” is a more apt, if less snappy, title for a film that sees mom turned into the very thing that the family rails against. Now rendered mute, she can have a proper chance at bonafide communication with her daughter. When Merida chops the family portrait in half and Queen Elinor reacts by throws her bow, the symbol of both her passion and her break with tradition, not to mention the link with her doting dad, into the fireplace, this is a great rift that threatens the entire family unit. Merida is not around to see her mother weep as the adult in the feud her mother unwisely lost control. This is the central truth of Brave, that we tend to talk a lot – at – each other but never achieve understanding. This is a complex and nuanced thing for an animated feature to dwell on in this fashion.
Now Brave is not exactly the film I wanted. I would have preferred things if Pixar shot its arrows not after Disney targets but rather after its leader John Lasseter’s hero and idol, Hayao Miyazaki and the Japanese Studio Ghibli. At times Brave seems to be aiming for the area that studio showed mastery with in its girl-hero epics Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Spirited Away. The wicked witch in Brave bears (see what I did there?) strong resemblance to a certain ‘mistress of the bathhouse’ in the latter, but credit Pixar for eschewing a villain as the cause, but rather the heroine’s childishness (also in Spirited Away.) America being America, it has to be about how the individual learns from making large blunders instead of an initially well rounded girl finding her way in the world with strong consideration of family and responsibility. But I won’t fault cultural differences or story telling, here, it is that Brave‘s only weakness is that it goes for goofy (slapstick), or convenient plotting, when it should go for the grandiosity of its setting and rich highland history. But Pixar goes its own way on these things, and that the film is entirely in service of the royal-smack down between mom and daughter, over checking off boxes on a cultural list, is a minor gripe. The scene where Queen Elinor watches Merida come around to the Queen’s way (and the Queen’s words) but on her daughters terms and conditions made me consider that the reason for the 3D was not so much stereoscopic enhancement, but that those big black glasses hides the tears of so many parents, myself included, weeping in empathy and spirit.
A lot has been made of Pixar’s latest film being the first of its slate to centre around a female protagonist. A great deal has also been written about how stunning it looks (even in comparison to the rest of its brethren) and about all the new proprietary technology that had to be invented just in order to render out all the graphics. All true. In the wake of its initial screenings, there has also been a fair amount of chatter about how the story is a bit of a letdown, somewhat generic and how the film is simply ordinary. That, I must say, is a load of shite.
Perhaps it’s just a wee bit of my Scottish heritage getting its back up, but I thought the film a wonderful mix of adventure, magical fantasy and gentle humor all of which was in service to the set of themes of the story – the main one being clearly spelled out: you can control your own fate, if you’re brave enough to try. However it wraps this common sage advice into a mother\daughter story that not only shows the push-pull of a parent-child relationship where each is far more similar to the other than they would ever care to admit, but also highlights the importance of real communication. Set in the Scottish Highlands, Queen Elinor has been raising Merida to take on duties of a princess and to eventually marry one of the first born sons of one of the leaders of the other clans. Her father has helped to bring peace to the previously warring clans and the selection of the proper suitor for Merida is one of the ceremonial acts that keeps the clans together. If you’ve seen a single image of the film, you’ll already know that these plans do not coincide with Merida’s, but neither mother nor daughter will give an inch since they never really listen to the other. This sets up Merida’s big act of rebellion at the archery contest where the young men try to win her hand. When that fails to get her point across, she takes more drastic measures.
It’s certainly the act of a petulant know-it-all child, but the character of Merida has already been given enough time with us that we can’t help but forgive the act. It helps that she’s voiced by Kelly MacDonald, who easily manages the range of emotions of a teenager but can also handle the tough authoritative voice of a young woman (and a single instance of “Shut it!” that even quieted down several of the more talkative youngsters in the audience). Though Billy Connolly and Emma Thompson are also terrific as her parents, MacDonald is fantastic as she has the bear’s share of the work and her voice really fits those ravishing locks. That flaming orange hair is certainly the signature of the film, but its landscapes, lighting and detail are all equally impressive. If it’s too obvious to state that a Pixar film looks gorgeous, it doesn’t take away from the fact that it really does. I should also address the 3D – it’s totally unnecessary, but also one of the best examples I’ve seen of using the medium to provide depth of space. And it didn’t even give me a headache…
As a whole the film has much more of an old style Disney feel in its approach to story as well as humour. Much of the humor in the film has been seen before – typical animated facial reactions and such – and comes less from the comedic abilities of its voice cast and more from character and physical action. As the story goes on and the characters grow fuller, it feels fresher. And so does the approach towards the film’s messages. Brave manages to stretch the several different themes it has (responsibility for one’s own actions and fate, finding bravery within you, communication) to bring forward a very contemporary take on our specie’s ability to talk over each other. Brave posits that to really understand the other side of an argument or point of view, you must swallow your pride and the natural human desire to feel superior. To truly listen is to accept that you might be able to learn something new, alter an opinion or even admit that you might be capable of being wrong. It’s not that difficult to do – maybe just a little scary the first time you try it.
Brave seems like it was made for me: it looks gorgeous, it sounds fantastic, it’s a story of strong women and finding your way in the world, realising that being brave is something that comes from within and that sometimes, there are things worth fighting for, even if you’re fighting against tradition. But a part of this story doesn’t sit right with me and it’s the fairy tale aspect which unfolds in the film’s second half as Merida and her mother try to sort through the pickle Merida has created.
Brave’s second half feels like another movie. It’s a little too goofy and though the emotional connection between the two women grows, the story itself lost me and as Merida and mom try to sort through the witch’s spell, I found myself taken in with the visuals: the gorgeous way Merida’s hair looks real, shinning and glowing with different shades of red, the way the forest looked real in places with a sheen to the grasses and moss that hinted at dew, the movement of both Merida’s horse and her mom, both of which you can almost see the muscles contracting underneath hair and fur…it’s a marvel but when I spent more time checking out the visuals than caring for the story, there’s a problem.
Surprisingly, there was still a huge wave of emotion that hit me as the second sun rises and the curse seems to be permanent. As Merida and her mother share their moment at the centre of the circle henge, I did get a little teary eyed.
I may not have loved every moment of Brave but I did love enough of it that it resonated with me on an emotional level and brought up memories of being young and rebellious and trying to figure out what I wanted to do, even if it went against what my mother wanted. Few good films succeed in eliciting that sort of response and the fact that a movie I only half like manages that feat is something to me seen.
Nothing within Brave is completely horrible (outside of the music), but it’s completely forgettable and frankly a little boring. The humor almost never lands, the characters are uninteresting, the storyline is one that’s been told a million times over and to top it off the musical choices alone were enough to have me almost request that theaters install barf bags on the seat backs.
Visually it’s not all that immersive (I did not see the “3D experience”). For one thing, Pixar has never done humans particularly well; they always look like fat mannequins. In Brave, a couple of the caricature types were mildly interesting, but mostly, everyone in this movie is generally just pretty ugly. Sure, I could watch that beautiful red hair bounce around all day, but hell, even the animation from other studios trumps Brave in imagination and cinematogrpahy (see How to Train Your Dragon). On the ladder of previous Pixar studio films, Brave hangs squarely on the lower-most rung. It’s isn’t that the film is not good looking, it’s just disappointing compared to Pixar’s output of years past (see Ratatouille and Cars).
Besides how generic and homely the characters look, is their unimaginative behavior and dialogue. Slapstick is resorted to in most cases throughout the film and just watching a giant bear knock over tables and tapestries for 20 minutes doesn’t quite cut it with me.
I don’t have much to say as mostly this was one long ho-hum for the most part. A chuckle here, a check of the watch there and the movie was over. I don’t necessarily hold Pixar to higher standards; I saw the trailer and knew essentially what I was getting into. But I do expect some level of creativity and imagination and it’s hard to see much of either in Brave. It’s looking more and more like Pixar peaked with Toy Story 3 and it’s all downhill from here.
Ryan McNeil (The Matinee):
Being independent and free-spirited is a wonderful thing…but one must always remember that there is no magic spell that will make everything better. Everything comes at a cost.
Were I a betting man, I would wager that a lot of adults will get midway into Brave and find themselves with an antsy feeling…as if they were part of something they hadn’t signed on for. That doesn’t mean that what they’ve been signed on for isn’t something special.
We’ve arrived in an age where children aren’t being told faery tales anymore. Children are getting cinematic tripe piled on their plate with the side of celebrity voices…fleets of parrots and magical garden gnomes are put in front of them not to spark their imagination, but merely to distract them. I can’t help but feel that they are getting short-changed. Where a generation or two ago, we still raised our children on the adventures of Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan, it’s as if we don’t think this generation of children deserve the same sorts of grand ideas. Essentially, children aren’t being told faery tales anymore because we have stopped writing them.
Then along comes Pixar.
What the people at Pixar have done with Brave is create something with great vision. They could have taken the low road, filled the script with winking references to modern pop culture and stacked it with ‘A-List’ celebrities. It would have been gobbled up by the mass market, but likely forgotten in the growing pile of like-products…a pile that’s growing so fast that WALL-E can’t cube it up fast enough. Instead, Pixar took the high road: they dared to tell a story with a moral, they created a lush beautiful world where magic still exists. We usually take the low road, and Pixar takes the high road, yet they get to Scotland before us.
Merida’s tale is one that has a lot of lessons to be learned. The easy take-a-way is that daughters shouldn’t be afraid to speak up. There’s long been the stigma attached to faery tales that so many of them send the curious message of princesses who sit back and wait for a prince to come along and rescue them (some literally needing to be awaken by a kiss). Merida would never be caught dead in such a story. She wants to run, she wants to climb, she wants to shoot her arrows and enjoy what her splendid country has to offer. One can’t help but admire a story that teaches little girls to seize the day instead of waiting for the day to be handed to them.
Where the story really earns its stripes, is in a detail I don’t fully want to give away (because the marketing never did). While I won’t reveal the detail, I will note that the lesson it teaches Merida (and the audience), is that it is all well and good for our daughters and sons to want…but a whole other thing for them to take without regard for consequences. For ages, children have believed that they knew better than their parents, that they weren’t understood. If their mothers and fathers weren’t going to give in to their wants, then a kid would just shrug and do it anyway. The sad truth is this cuts deep for a parent, and sometimes can have a wider ripple effect than the child realizes.
What Pixar wants kids to understand, is that while it is important to be free-spirited, one must also be respectful to those that love them. Basically, that there is a very fine line between empowered and entitled.
Watching this lesson unfurl in this fable would have been enough. Pixar wraps it in a lush, green, rolling countryside, dots it with a plucky celtic score, and serves it up with that boisterous shock of red hair that continually draws your eye to Merida. They might be forsaking the grown-ups wanting pop culture fodder, but are placing their bets on the children who will cling tight to the film and pass it on to their children. It might not be what mass audiences wanted, but Pixar has made a bold play with Brave.
They have chosen to evoke the spirit of Walt Disney himself and bring a faery tale to life: In choosing to write a faery tale of their own, they might have even one-upped Walt himself.
Running quite the spectrum here folks. Take from Brave what you will. A boring kids tale filled with tired tropes and safe humor or a quality leap for a heroine of epic proportions learning the difficult way about family and fate? Or is it somewhere in the middle ground with exciting characters and immersive visuals but a bit lackluster in storytelling? No matter where you land on this particular battle ground, it should make for interesting conversation. Go forth and converse.